Ironstone china, ironstone ware or most commonly just ironstone, is a type of vitreous pottery first made in the United Kingdom in the early 19th century. It is often classed as earthenware although in appearance and properties it is similar to fine stoneware. It was developed in the 19th century by potters in Staffordshire, England as a cheaper, mass-produced alternative for porcelain.
There is no iron in ironstone; its name is derived from its notable strength and durability.
Ironstone in Britain's Staffordshire potteries was closely associated with the company founded by Charles James Mason following his patent of 1813, with the name subsequently becoming generic. The strength of Mason's ironstone body enabled the company to produce ornamental objects of considerable size including vestibule vases 1.5 metres high and mantelpieces assembled from several large sections.
Antique ironstone wares are collectable, and in particular items made by Mason's.
Ironstone was patented by the British potter Charles James Mason in 1813. His father, Miles Mason (1752–1822) married the daughter of Richard Farrar, who had a business selling imported Oriental porcelain in London. Subsequently Mason continued this business, but after the East India Company ceased the bulk importation of Oriental porcelain in 1791 he began to manufacture his own wares. His first manufacturing venture was a partnership with Thomas Wolfe and John Lucock in Liverpool, and he later formed a partnership with George Wolfe to manufacture pottery in Staffordshire.
Subsequently other manufacturers produced ironstone, with James Edwards (1805–1867) of the Dalehall Pottery in Staffordshire also credited as its pioneer. Other sources also attribute the invention of ironstone to William Turner of Longton, and Josiah Spode who is known to have been producing ironstone ware by 1805, "which he exported in immense quantities to France and other countries". The popularity of Spode's ironstone surpassed the traditional faience pottery in France.
A variety of ironstone types was being produced by the mid-19th century. "Derbyshire ironstone" became a particularly popular variety in the 19th century, as well as "yellow ironstone". Patterns with raised edges became popular in the mid-19th century, including "cane-coloured" Derbyshire ironstone. Some of the most well-known and collectable British ironstone manufacturers of the 19th century include:
- Church Gresley Pottery
- Edge, Malkin, Burslem, Staffordshire
- Hartshorne Pottery (founded by James Onions around 1790)
- Hartshorne Potteries (founded in 1818 by Joseph Thompson)
- Hill Top Works
- Old Midway Pottery
- Rawdon Pottery
- Sharpe Brothers
- Spode and Copeland
- Swadlincote Potteries
- Waterloo Pottery
- Wooden Box Pottery
- Woodville Pottery (founded in 1833 by Thomas Hall and William Davenport)
- Woodville Potteries (founded in 1810 by Mr Watts)
In the United States, ironstone ware was being manufactured from the 1850s onward. The earliest American ironstone potters were in operation around Trenton, New Jersey. Before this, white ironstone ware was imported to the United States from England, beginning in the 1840s. Undecorated tableware was most popular in the United States, and British potteries produced white ironstone ware, known as "White Ironstone" or "White Granite" ware, for the American market. During the mid-19th century it was the largest export market for Staffordshire's potteries. In the 1860s, British manufacturers began adding agricultural motifs, such as wheat, to their products to appeal to the American market. These patterns became known as "farmers' china" or "threshers' china". Plain white ironstone ware was widely marketed in the United States until the end of the 19th century.
Notable 19th-century ironstone manufacturers in the United States include:
Types of ironstone ware
Transfer-printed designs were first applied to ironstone patterns by Mason's in an attempt to copy Chinese porcelain cheaply. Transferware is most often in one colour against a white background, such as blue, red, green or brown. Some patterns included detail colours that were added on top of the main transfer after the glaze had been applied.
Transferware designs range from dense patterns that cover the piece, to small motifs applied sparingly to give a delicate appearance, as with floral motifs.
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